Hamlet is a revenge tragedy by William Shakespeare. Written between 1599-1601, it is perhaps Shakespeare's most famous play, and possibly one of the most famous works written in the English language, being the subject of more essays than any other work. The tale heavily features the themes procrastination, deterioration, incest, revenge, madness, homicide, and suicide.
The Ghost - A spirit of the dead King Hamlet
Claudius - Recently crowned King of Denmark, brother of King Hamlet
Gertrude - Widow of King Hamlet
Hamlet - Prince, son of King Hamlet and Gertrude
Horatio - Hamlet's life long friend.
Polonius - Elderly, pompous advisor to the king
Laertes - Polonius' son
Ophelia - Polonius' daughter and lover of Hamlet
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern - Two buffoonish school friends of Hamlet
Fortinbras - Prince of Norway
The grave diggers
also: Actors, Courtiers, Guards, Norwegian Soldiers etc.
The play begins with the palace watchmen being terrified by the appearance of a ghost of the old King Hamlet. Meanwhile, in the court, King Claudius (King Hamlet's brother) proclaims his wedding to Gertrude, the widow of King Hamlet. Prince Hamlet, son of king Hamlet and Gertrude is melancholy at both his father's death, and at his mother's "incest" with Claudius. Laertes, son of the king's adviser Polonius, is leaving on a trip. Laertes tells his sister Ophelia to not get too involved with Prince Hamlet; so does her father, so she promises to break off the relationship.
Horatio tells Hamlet of the ghost sightings, and Hamlet heads out to investigate the appearances. Hamlet chases the ghost into the woods. Now alone, the ghost tells of how he is the spirit of old King Hamlet, tortured in purgatory and awaiting vengeance. He claims he was murdered by Claudius as he lay asleep in the gardens, the brother pouring poison into the King's ear. The ghost commands Hamlet to kill Claudius (but not harm Gertrude) to free him from his suffering. Hamlet is eventually found, alone, by his friends. Hamlet does not tell the others what he has heard.
Whilst Polonius dispatches a servant to spy on Laertes, Ophelia tells Polonius that Hamlet burst into her room and scared her. The King and Queen send two school friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to spy on Hamlet. They disagree on why Hamlet is acting strangely. The Queen says it is because of their over-hasty marriage, but the king prefers the story that Hamlet is lovesick over Ophelia, which is what Polonius thinks. They hide while Hamlet, now apparently insane, enters and begins insulting Polonius. The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come in and question him, but Hamlet is suspicious and reveals nothing.
A troupe of actors enter, and Hamlet has Polonius hire them. Hamlet commissions the group to enact a specific routine, his reasons for which are presented in the famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Hamlet talks of about his internal struggles: he hates his uncle, he's angry at his mother but he's worried that the ghost might be a demon sent to trick him. Hamlet has the idea of using a play to provoke the King, with the troupe acting out a play who's plot strongly resembles King Hamlet's alleged murder. The plan works brilliantly, as the king is forced to end the play out of his overwhelming grief. Hamlet loudly celebrates his triumph in front of the King and Queen. After his celebration, Hamlet goes to kill the King in one of his personal chambers.
Hamlet finds the King praying, and decides not to kill him then, lest his sins be forgiven and he be sent to heaven. Hamlet instead goes to his mother's quarters. The Queen reprimands him for celebrating at the time of the King's grief. Hamlet counters by unleashing his pent up anger at his mother's incest and lack of sadness for the death of Hamlet's father. When a noise comes from behind a tapestry, Hamlet sticks his sword through, thinking he has stabbed Claudius. Instead, he discovers that he has killed Polonius, who was eavesdropping. Hamlet drags the corpse from the scene.
Claudius is infuriated by the murder of Polonius and demands Hamlet should show them where he hid the body, but the (seemingly) demented Hamlet refuses. Hamlet is exiled to England, along with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Claudius provides the two with a letter to the English King, stating that Hamlet must be executed on arrival. Meanwhile, Ophelia has descended into total madness over the death of her father. Laertes returns to discover the shocking state of his sister, and demands revenge.
Time has moved on, and Hamlet is back in Denmark. Times are unstable, and an invasion, lead by Fortinbras is imminent. He greets Horatio, and explains how his voyage was interrupted by pirates. Whilst fighting them off, he discovered Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s letter. He replaced it with an alternative letter which stated the two should be executed on arrival instead. He then made his way back to Denmark in secret. As they chat, they oversee two drunken grave diggers in a freshly dug plot. Hamlet exchanges jokes with the two, whilst they exhume the remains of the old court Jester, Yorick. Hamlet grows nostalgic on seeing the bones of the old entertainer ("Alas, poor Yorick / I knew him, Horatio"). Meanwhile, a funeral procession arrives, with Claudius, Gertude and Laertes present. Hamlet discovers the body is that of Ophelia. She drowned, possibly in an act of suicide. Distraught, Hamlet surprises the funeral procession with his presence, and leaps into the grave to embrace her. Laertes, infuriated that Hamlet is disrupting his sister's burial, brawls with him. The two men are forced apart, and Claudius proclaims that the two should settle their dispute properly; by duel.
On the day of the duel, Claudius plots with Laertes to rig the fight. He provides Laertes with a poisoned foil, and places more poison in Hamlet's drink. The two men begin to duel. Hamlet proves to be the superior swordsman, but is eventually slashed by Laertes in between boughts. Hamlet loses his temper and scuffles with Laertes. The two swords are swapped in the confusion, and Hamlet pierces Laertes with the poison blade. Gertrude, to Claudius's horror, drinks from Hamlet's goblet, and is poisoned. Laertes, now dying, reveals Claudius' scheme. Gertrude dies. Hamlet flies into a rage, stabs claudius, and forces him to drink the last of the poison. Claudius dies. Hamlet dies from his wound. Horatio is the only one left. Fortinbras and his invasion force enter the court and see a pile of bodies before them. A messenger proclaims that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. Fortinbras proclaims himself ruler, offering a possible glimmer of future stability.
Major film versions of the play have starred Laurence Olivier, Mel Gibson, and Kenneth Branagh. (While both Olivier and Branagh directed and starred in their versions, Franco Zeffirelli directed the one with Gibson.)
Laurence Olivier's black-and-white 1948 film won four Oscars; best actor in a leading role, best art-set direction, best costume design and best picture. Olivier's performance was considered an unapproachable ideal and remains so. It co-starred Basil Sydney as Claudius, Eileen Herlie as Gertrude, Terence Morgan as Laertes and Jean Simmons as Ophelia.
Mel Gibson's 1990 version uses modernized English and attempts to portray a grittier, tougher Hamlet. The film was nominated for two Oscars. It co-starred Alan Bates as Claudius, Glenn Close as Gerturde, Nathaniel Parker as Laertes and Helena Bonham Carter as Ophelia.
Kenneth Branagh's 1996 version is 4 hours long as it includes the complete, unabridged text of the whole play. The film was nominated for four Oscars. It co-starred Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Julie Christie as Gertrude, Michael Maloney as Laertes and Kate Winslet as Ophelia. It also included well-known actors in cameo roles such as Charlton Heston, John Gielgud, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams.
The 2000 version with Ethan Hawke as a believably young Hamlet is set entirely in New York City, with Denmark a corporation. Julia Stiles is brilliant as Ophelia, and Bill Murray is pitch perfect as the king's tragically inept advisor Polonious.
The British Broadcasting Corporation also filmed a version for television with Derek Jacobi in the title role.
While operas based on Shakespeare are quite common, there is only one operatic adaptation of Hamlet, by French composer Ambroise Thomas in 1868.
Shakespeare's Hamlet was based on a long narrative tradition, beginning with Saxo Grammaticus' Historica Danica (1180-1208). His legendary story of Amlethus was adapted by French writer François Belleforest in 1576; this new version of the story included more dialogue and psychological commentary than the original. By 1589, an English-language Hamlet play was being performed. The author of this Ur-Hamlet is not known, although some evidence points towards Thomas Kyd, author of the prototypical English revenge play, The Spanish Tragedie. Shakespeare received most of his Hamlet material from this narrative tradition and transformed it into the enduring work known today.
References in Popular Culture
In the 1960s, playwright Tom Stoppard wrote the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which portrays the action from the viewpoint of Hamlet's schoolfriends and expands their roles.
The progressive metal band Dream Theater had their biggest hit in the early 1990s with "Pull Me Under", a song that referenced Hamlet throughout. The song has some direct quotations from the play.
Quotes and Lines
"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."
-Marcellus, Act I, Scene 4
"Though this be madness, yet there is method in't."
-Polonius, Act II, Scene 2
"For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
-Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2
"I am but mad by north-north-west."
-Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2
"The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King."
-Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2
"To be, or not to be: that is the question.
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die; to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep? perchance to dream. Ay there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despis'd love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would those fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something under death, —
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, — puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others we know naught of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard, their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action."
-Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1
"The lady doth protest too much, methinks."
-Gertrude, Act III, Scene 2
"Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio;"
-Hamlet, Act V, Scene 1
"O, I die, Horatio."
-Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2
"The rest is silence."
-Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2
"Good night, sweet prince; and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!"
-Horatio, Act V, Scene 2
- "This Hamlet's effectiveness rests on an astonishing number of pitch-perfect choices, founded in Almereyda's instincts and those of the performers, many of which have the feel of being completely spontaneous. Salon review
- David Bevington, ed., The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Update 4th ed. (New York: Longman, 1997), A43-A45.